(1953 – 1982)
For me, it all began in the 1950s, when I was a 5 year-old kid living in small town Freelandville, Indiana. Freelandville was quintessential Small Town U.S.A. where everybody knew everybody and crank-telephones still connected you to a town operator who knew everything about everybody. The town’s main street intersection contained a stone-faced bank, a creaky-floored hardware store, an OshKosh B’gosh general store filled with farmer overalls and assortments of straw hats. Catty-cornered from the dry-goods store was a drugstore and soda shop. Real milkshakes cost 10 cents, hotdogs were 15 cents or thereabouts.
South Pacific Pinball Machine
That soda shop was where my love for gaming began. I recall the day clearly. I was sitting on a red Naugahyde counter stool with my little kid feet dangling in the air. I was sipping a 5-cent cherry Coke, watching a red pickup truck pull up to the front door. That was when a man wearing coveralls delivered a game that would change my life forever, a “South Pacific” pinball machine.
The deliveryman set it up while I watched, goggle-eyed. Then he played a few test games. My mouth dropped open. The sound that jangled into my ears was exactly what every good sound that ever was or ever would be was supposed to be. The accompanying light show was hypnotic. If I had died at that moment my short life would have been complete.
When the man was gone — leaving behind not only a flashing and glittering machine, but one loaded with… free games! — the mystery box continued to blink like Christmas tree lights beckoning me closer.
Standing on my tip-toes, I flipped and flapped the flippers with so much ferocity the soda shop lady took pity on me and dragged a wooden Coca-Cola crate over so I could step up on it to see what I was doing.”Push that button,” she instructed. “Then pull that knob and let it go to launch the ball.”
So much for 10 cent shakes and 15 cent hot dogs. From that moment on I was a nickel-pinball-machine-gamer-addict.
PERISCOPE & PONG
Periscope & Pong
For the next 20 years I played pinball games every chance I got. Then, in 1972, while attending college in Norfolk, Virginia, and doing homework in an off-campus coffee house, another red pickup truck pulled up to the front door and, I swear, the same man in coveralls delivered yet another machine that would change my life all over again: PONG.
I can still hear that dock-Dock-DOCKING sound effect and see a phosphorescent-green pixelated blip making fuzzy contact with a PONG paddle. I became so good at PONG I began playing for beers in-between bouts of studying and drinking coffee.
PONG — although not the first commercialized video game (that honor goes to Sega with the release of the “electro-mechanical” “Periscope” in 1968) — PONG’s shear simplistic popularity set the stage for yet another evolutionary nudge into the future of gaming; PONG’s monitor-based delivery system eventually opened a tiny crack in the video game universe, and the bigger, badder, faster color arcade games wasted little time leaping through the cosmic rift.
ARCADE GAMES’ GOLDEN YEARS
The late 1970s – early 1980s marked the nearly exponential expansion and popularity of what came to be known as Arcade games — IMO, direct descendants of pinball machines in that the guts of the games were encased in fancy wooden cabinets showcasing electronic bells and whistles and intoxicating video monitor-based light shows. Keywords here are monitor-based.
Although today’s gamers enjoy stunning graphics, unimaginable HD-quality imaging resolutions, and monster-sized monitors, it was not always that way. Back in the 1980s display sophistication was limited to CGA (1981, Color Graphics Adaptor — 4 colors), EGA (1984, Enhanced Graphics Adapter — 16 colors), VGA (1987, Video Graphics Array — 256 simultaneous colors), and 13-inch or smaller monitor screens. Think about that the next time you jack in to a modern FPS game boasting millions of colors.
CGA, EGA, & VGA Comparison
(For copyright consideration, click image to visit Jordan Mechner’s site. He did a very good job of combining 3 generations of gaming screen-resolution examples into a single image. CGA on left, EGA center, VGA right.
I have never much enjoyed playing Arcade Games in a true Arcade setting kind of way. Too noisy, too hectic for me. Back then, I worked hard for a living; when I got off work I preferred to blow off steam in dark barrooms stocked with cold beer, a few top-ranked games, wild women and friends. We played for rowdy companionship, swag and bragging rights, and cold beer. LOTS of cold beer.
MOUSER’S FAVORITE 1970-1980s ARCADE GAMES
Space Invaders & Pac-Man
SPACE INVADERS by Taito 1978
Alien monster-thingies drop down from the sky and you have to shoot at them through rapidly disintegrating barriers before they land on your head and kill you. Upper level aliens get progressively smaller, faster, and increase in point value. I was fascinated by Space Invaders for several months. Space Invaders was a big hit world wide, expanding gaming awareness and opening up the marketplace for many more “get them before they get you” game development thinking.
PAC-MAN by Namco 1980
Everyone — even you young guys — are familiar with this one. Clear all the dots without being eaten. When I was a PM Magazine TV story producer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, we shot a 6-minute feature story on a dude who claimed he could “break” a Pac-Man machine by maxing out his score without dying. If I recall correctly, it took him about 6 hours. And — yes, he broke the machine. He refused to drink anything because a pee-break would cause instant death. Poor guy. “It’s all about memorizing patterns,” he said. Right. I got that. After the first hour — while my bored crew continued to video-tape blinky, inky, pinky, and sue chasing Pac-Man around the screen, I was in the back room sipping beer and playing Defender, one of my all-time favorite games.
Defender & Joust: Man, oh, man — great games!
DEFENDER by Williams Electronics 1981
Defender absolutely and unequivocally kicked butt with a capital B, and IMO was the best 2-D starship-type shooter game of all time. I spent hours and hours perfecting my moves. In the Cotton Club lounge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I hung out nearly every night after work, it was standing room only around this machine. Back then, a “multi-player game” meant that you played as player #1, and then player #2 got his chance. The game consisted of 3 rounds. The winner of the 3 rounds accepted a beer from the disgruntled loser, and the next player in line became the winner’s next opponent. Mediocre players had very long waits in-between defeats. Watching the Defender Video link I’ve provided here is a must do: the person playing the game is a Pro. Watch the DEFENDER video below and you will understand.
JOUST by Williams Electronics 1982
Williams Electronics took the gaming community by storm all over again when “Joust” was released in 1982. All stops were pulled: like Defender, sound effects were outstanding. Besides, how can you possibly be disappointed while mounted on top of a flying ostrich, searching for treasure-eggs while wearing armor, wielding a lance, killing bad guys and hunting for flying dragons?
It doesn’t get any better than that.
PAINTBALL: THE ROOTS OF FPS GAMING
One evening in 1982, while playing Defender for beers, I noticed a large lump smack dab in the center of my friend’s forehead. “How’d you get that lump?” I asked. It was an innocent enough question.
“Paintball,” he said.
“What’s THAT?” I asked.
“Playing WAR in the woods,” he said. “War with air rifles and plastic balls filled with paint instead of bullets. You wanna play?”
Dumb question. That weekend I hopped in the back of yet another red pickup truck with a bunch of serious-looking paintball warriors. It was about an hour before sunrise. Some of the guys had flashlights, and all were dressed in paint-covered camouflage fatigues. Did I mention serious-looking-warriors? An hour later — the sun was just beginning to come up — we turned off the highway onto a private dirt road. As we neared our destination, I glimpsed paint-splattered trees along the side of the road, illuminated by the flashlights. Spooky stuff. Several guys hooted and hollered and fired their weapons out of the back of the truck, a very loud cracking sound, followed by even louder pops as the plastic-coated paint balls slammed into tree bark.
The ensuing Paintball war was intense: running and hopping through poison ivy-ringed swamps, zig-zagging and sweating and swearing and slapping at mosquitoes, my heart pounding a ka-ZILLION times a minute. Shooting at real people. And man, oh, man, those paint balls hurt like hell! Come sunset, everyone was covered with blue and red splotches of paint, and — lots of welts. I had a killer lump poking out from my forehead.
I loved it.
DAWNING OF COMPUTER GAMES
Very few households could afford computers in the 1980s. They were too expensive for normal people. Besides — why would anyone ever need a home computer? Didn’t matter. I bought my first one in 1983. It was a $2,000 Tandy TRSDOS Radio Shack Model 4. The Model 410 Daisywheel printer cost $1,700 (you had to change the font wheel to type an italicized word, then change it back to the regular font wheel to continue), the 300-baud modem, $400. My Model 4 came with 64K of memory. And two, 5 1/4-inch floppy diskettes.
I thought I was ready for anything. But ZORK took me by surprise.
ZORK I: THE GREAT UNDERGROUND EMPIRE 1982
Zork was created in the late 1970s by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling — students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Zork was released 12 years later, I was hooked within minutes. I called in sick, holed myself up for a week in my darkened living room with lots of junk food and black coffee.
ZORK I wOw wOw wOw! Click for actual ZORK I screen captures and more information.
There were no graphics within Zork, no color other than a black and white and greenish screen, a TEXT-only fantasy game; you were presented a descriptive paragraph to which you typed in an appropriate response. Your response directed you to another descriptive paragraph of text. For instance (from memory):
“You are standing in a mountain field. To the East is a stone farmhouse. To the South is a meandering brook. To the West you can barely make out a pathway that leads to a dark forest.” Wherein you type: “GO EAST”, and hit the <Enter> key. “You walk down a path lined with flowers. A rusty gate bars your way to a two-story farmhouse. Just inside the gate on a cobblestone walkway you notice a paper bag.” You type: “Pick up paper bag.” “You can’t do that. A rusty gate bars your way…”
By that afternoon my desk was overflowing with hand drawn map sketches, because it wasn’t until later that commercial maps became available. I was fighting Trolls with text, draining hydroelectric dams from within an underground control room, and floating down an enchanting river in a bicycle pump-inflated rubber raft in search of treasure.
“You are in a dark cave. A vampire bat swoops down from nowhere. Stinky bat-tails are wriggling up your nostrils. It grabs hold of your tongue…” I type: “THROW CLOVE OF GARLIC AT BAT!” “It is dark. You can’t find the garlic. You are — DEAD!” I type in something like: “Screw you!” and hit <ENTER>. The floppy drive’s busy light flickers. Computer byte-brains are flying out of the floppy disk bay door. The mighty ZORK responds: “I am sorry, but I do not understand the word ‘YOU’.”
Not only were those MIT programmers good storytellers, they also had a wonderful sense of humor. Do yourself a favor, search “Zork.” It is still available.
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This Mouser’s History of Gaming, Part I (1953 – 1982) is by no means complete, as it was written from my own unique perspective using games I played and loved. Many other games were set aside in this post for space considerations rather than lack of enthusiasm or importance. Today’s generation of gamers often take for granted the amazing parade of past technologies that were necessary in delivering us to where we are today.
I recall when TV consisted of 3 channels and when remote controls were science fiction. Back then, we had to get off the couch to change the channel! The gaming changes I have witnessed these past fifty years have often left me speechless. What games will YOU be playing fifty years from now?
You younger players certainly have a lot to look forward to just like I did when I was 5 years old standing at the edge of a pinball machine and seeing just a glimpse at the brink of a new universe.
Mouser’s History of Gaming, Part II will delve into the early 80s and beyond, quite possibly setting up a “Part III” along the way. Not sure. Time to play a bit. There are soooo many new games out there.
And for those of you who may be a bit confused about this “Gray Mouser” guy, he is my main in-game identity.
© Copyright 2014 by Simply Tim All rights reserved worldwide.
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